Folk medicine was not wholly incorrect when it first engendered the notion that garlic wards off vampires. It wards off most other frightening things. Certainly, garlic thwarts cancers and weak immune systems; it also promotes healthier blood pressure and builds stronger, more discerning palates. Garlic, collected in its frail, translucent sac, is like a bundle of gems, collected for the celebration of long life. A lesser-known bit of folklore decrees that two people predisposed to garlic should never fall in love. Like most Mediterranean gems, garlic is a hot weather creation, dependent on heat to release its juices and reach the sweet apex of its flavor. Two hot-weathered people eating roasted garlic engage in a highly combustible activity, due at any time to explode.
I’d roasted countless pots of those aromatic clusters in the oven – how the oil popped and crackled as it infused the hot cloves! While the garlic roasted, I envisioned long rows of grapevines sloping the Italian alps as some young man named Sandro or Niccolo walked desolately among them, whistling Italian folk songs and daydreaming about the poetry in a naked woman’s form. Oh Niccolo, I wondered, why are you so elusive? When Niccolo finally entered my life, he may have changed his name, but I recognized his song and slipped gratefully and without hesitation on an oily garlic skin into his poetic and crazy arms.
I knew he was troubled before we started dating. I’d sat in his office and listened to his unusual notions countless times, doing my best to sympathize with ideas I didn’t really understand and suspicions I didn’t necessarily share. He talked and I listened, and one day I found myself sitting on his lap, my hands hopelessly tangled in his long, dark hair, kissing his lips like my life depended on it.
The details lose focus, days that seemed to pass languidly and with a lot of laughter blur into the background. Over the course of a year, I rarely realized that what went on in my head was not the same as what went on in his. Sometimes, though, realization hit – and it seared, like the sting of garlic juice in a fresh wound. I could put his demons out of my mind and imagine him as my ideal companion, which in many regards he was, but he would never be able to move beyond the trials in his head. We split abruptly, cleft our bond rashly.
Some 8,000 years ago, the Mediterranean Sea flooded the Caspian Sea, which later became the Crimea and still later the Black Sea. When the flood subsided, the two seas separated, receding to their original corners of the world. I suppose that all things happen for such reasons, including the separation from my Niccolo: garlic lovers as we were, doomed to tempermental flights of fancy and connected by a secret deluge several thousand years old. Garlic has since become less central to my cooking, perhaps because it forces me to recall a very potent sting from many years ago. Each time I smell garlic now, my eyes water and I want to shout his name. And then I think of his kisses and a frail, cloistered part of my heart sparks with buried memory.